Winter Is the Best Time of the Year for Landscape Photographers

Winter Is the Best Time of the Year for Landscape Photographers

There is something truly sublime about a fresh coat of snow. There are few things in nature that are as visually organic as snow-covered trees.

What isn’t great about the winter? There’s snow, ice, and freezing cold temperatures. Wait… this was supposed to be a list of the good things, right? The fact of the matter is that much of what can make landscape photography so powerful is the ability to transcend one particular experience and place someone at a certain time and place, and for many people, it’s about being able to experience a scene for themselves that they’ve not been able to get to for one reason or another. Winter conditions — particularly in more challenging to reach locations — can make it even more difficult for some people to experience a specific place and time themselves. 

In central Ohio, where I currently live, snow doesn’t come as often as I would like, and the scenery is a far cry from the gorgeous Western US or Northeast. But on those rare occasions when it does get even a light dusting, much of the traffic that would otherwise clog up some of the more popular locations dwindles to barely anything. This brings me to one of my favorite things about the snow: getting some alone time on the trails, opportunities to photograph as much as I like with little to no other human interference. In other parts of the world where snow is far common and comes in greater measure than here, the cold weather and snow are less of a deterrent, but still, it’s worth adventuring out if there’s a fresh blanket of snow on the ground. 

Another one of my favorite characteristics of photographing in the snow is its ability to add texture in some cases and reduce it in others to help simplify scenes. In cases where you’re shooting evergreens, the way the snow rests on the tree provides a lot of contrast between the green and white. Compared with a photo of the same tree without snow, the lack of contrast reduces the texture of the trees. Similarly, a steep mountain slope gains a lot texture with snow. However, in the other situations, when there’s enough snow to cover the ground, all of the texture from grass, rocks, or whatever would otherwise be in the scene is gone, which leaves you with the opportunity for a more simplified composition. 

Considerations for Shooting in the Snow

The colder the weather, the more likely it is to mess with your equipment. For me, shooting film with older cameras can present a problem if any part of the camera is dependent on electronics. (See: Mamiya 645 Pro TL) While I’ve shot my Mamiya in a blizzard and not (yet!) experienced an issue, I know that issues can be somewhat common with Pentax 67s, and my newest camera has yet to be tested in any sort of harsh winter environment. Further, for both analog and digital photographers alike, it is important to keep a spare battery in a warm place, as the cold weather causes batteries to lose their charge pretty quickly. 

Another challenge is metering in snowy areas. For shots with a lot of snow (compared with a light dusting of snow), the camera can struggle to calculate the proper shutter speed. In brief, for scenes with a lot of snow, the camera's meter sees what should be pure white but is calibrated in such a way as to underexposure the scene so that it looks gray. If you’re at all like me and prefer to shoot in aperture priority mode the majority of the time, I would suggest that you overexpose by 1 to 2 stops. While you don’t want any clipping, you don’t want what should be bright white snow to be interpreted as middle gray. 

Personally, I do not use filters as often as I can (or arguably should), so I have little to no advice on this. In cases where I’ve wanted a long exposure because it was actively snowing and I didn’t want it to show up in my photograph or when there was moving water that I wanted to give a sense of movement, I’ve used a variable ND filter. Though I’ve not used a polarizing filter to shoot in the snow, I’ve been told it helps, and I plan to take on with me on a trip to the Alps. Lastly, for those digital photographers, adjusting your white balance may be in order, as daylight balance can make scenes appear a bit blue/teal as you get closer to dawn or dusk. For film photographers, shooting with a warming filter can help counteract this, particularly if you’re shooting a cool film like Fuji Provia,though personally, I don’t mind the slight color shift. 

Additional Non-Photography-Related Considerations

While photographing in the winter can be incredibly beautiful, it is generally much more dangerous than in the summer. Before going out, you should take additional precautions. I highly suggest ice cleats (a.k.a. crampons) to ensure you stay upright. Walking over packed snow or ice is a great way for you and all of your gear to meet the ground faster than you would like. And even if you cannot see any ice, if the temperature has oscillated between above and below freezing in the days prior to your steps, there may well be a layer of ice beneath the snow. Just in case you take a fall, having your gear in a solid, waterproof bag with good padding is essential.

Just as importantly as staying upright, it is crucial to stay warm. While this may seem like it doesn’t need to be said given the context, I find that too many people underestimate just how much colder it feels to stand still for any amount of time setting up a shot, switching lenses, or switching film than it feels to constantly be on the move or going from building to car or car to building. Good gloves and a good, warm hat are essential. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, packing water and food are crucial. A person is just as capable of dehydration or hunger in the winter as they are in the summer. As a general rule of thumb, I try to pack for a hike that’s half again as long as I expect to take. 

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22 Comments

I second the ice cleats. I've come so close to falling and breaking at lest my camera, if not some bones, without them, that I now own a pair. I also try to stay focused on walking while I'm walking, instead of "multitasking." If I want to look at my phone or take a layer off, I stop and do it. Because I've almost fallen just by not paying attention, too.

James Madison's picture

The last time I took a fall (and busted open my film back open!) I was actually trying to switch out lenses while standing. Now, I take a seat before I do too much. Last time it was my film back - I don't need my camera body or a lens to be next.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Yes sir. Whenever i need to change a lens, load film or whatever...i either find a bench or table, sit on the grass or lay my coat down on the snow and do it on there. Dropped my camera once and that's the LAST time i want that to happen.

James Madison's picture

I hear that! No need for a repeat.

Blake Davenport's picture

Did a shoot near highlands NC and had my 1D Mk3 at the time and slid down the ice side of a mountain about 200 feet, 1D survived but my skin and glasses did not. It was amateur hour for me honestly but I learned not to go without cleats again.

I do prefer to shoot in manual mode while working landscapes but can understand why would would go aperture priority.

James Madison's picture

What!? That sounds insane! Glad you walked away from it alright!

It just depends. Aperture priority mode if I'm just walking around hand held but meter myself and shoot manual if I'm using a tripod.

Jeremy Whetzel's picture

Hey James!
Great read! I live not too far from you, I'm in SW PA, about 30 miles South of Pittsburgh. Just waiting on some snowfall to land here (and there too, lol) to get out and start capturing Winter in all her comely beauty.
Look forward to reading more from you!

James Madison's picture

Oh, nice! That area is beautiful and Pittsburgh is is an awesome city. Thanks so much!

Are you living in the same Ohio I am? Winter landscape photography consists of browns, yellows and grays day after day with an occasional layer of white. But seriously, ice cleats are a great suggestion. I fell straight back and down onto a root or rock buried in heavy snow (in an effort to protect my camera) while photographing one of my favorite waterfalls last winter. It's taken a year for it to stop hurting. Always step slowly and carefully near water and rocky areas. I find it useful to wear a thin pair of touchscreen gloves as a base layer with heavier gloves or mittens for an outer layer. Helps your fingers stay flexible for making adjustments to small buttons and dials.

James Madison's picture

The very one! All but 2 of the pictures in this post were taken in Ohio. Compared to the south, it's gorgeous here. I'm sorry to hear that - I'll add that to the list of reasons I need to make sure I don't forget mine.

We're very fortunate in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania to have an abundance of waterfalls, Mills and other features that are always some of my favorite wintertime subjects. I lived in the South for many years as well and it can definitely be less interesting in winter.

Instead of using Aperture Priority which is still mostly guesswork, I suggest using spot metering. If your camera doesn't have that capability then you can find a used analog Pentax for a reasonable price.

I find that even using an incident meter, with a little creativity and thinking, can be useful for landscapes and better than just the camera's AP. A spot's obviously better, but also more expensive.

James Madison's picture

What's best and whats the best you can do in the situation aren't always the same. If I take out my RB or 4x5, I spot meter but if I'm walking around with anything else capable of AP and its lighter weight, I'll probably go more care free. And I've not had enough photos lost to improper metering to care.

Greg Milunich's picture

Winter is one of my favorite times to shoot the night sky as well. Although its not peak Milky Way time for the northeast U.S. the skies can be extremely clear and the snow makes for some interesting foregrounds. I've also shot some cool scenes while om a frozen lake I could not have gotten otherwise.

James Madison's picture

I hear that! In the Southeast, winter is the best time to do astrophotography as its the only time of year its consistently not so humid that it affects the shots.

Greg Milunich's picture

Exactly. We get some incredibly clear nights when its frigid. I've been out when its been around 0 and its so clear.

jim hughes's picture

Good points, especially the one about not falling down. It is particularly easy to do while you're shifting around trying to frame a shot, and there is nothing that will make you feel dumber. I say this as someone who lives in Minnesota.

And also true that winter is a chance to get photos without a bunch of people in the foreground wearing XXL white t-shirts.

Some other thoughts about winter photography in this blog post:
https://jimhphoto.com/index.php/2020/01/06/winter-photos-on-overcast-days/

James Madison's picture

I know the feeling. Luckily the first and last time I slipped on the ice I was the only one around.

You've got some great shots there! Thanks for sharing.

jim hughes's picture

If no one saw it, IT NEVER HAPPENED.

Blake Sauner's picture

Ash Cave is it? Hello from west of Columbus, been meaning to get back out when it snows more but who knows if that will happen again here haha. Lovely shots! Thanks for the tips.

James Madison's picture

I hope we get at least one more solid blanket of snow but who knows - perhaps it'll come when I'm out of town.